It’s Christmas Day in Chicago and my family and I have just finished unwrapping presents by the fireplace as the warm glow cast by the twinkling lights and jumping flames lights up our living room. We’ve exhausted my Christmas playlist as we happily carry our pile of opened gifts to our rooms. It’s a familiar scene–one I love and look forward to every year–but something is missing, or rather someone. My grandma, who is usually perched on a white chair in the right corner of the room, isn’t there. Normally, she’d be sitting amidst a shopping bag of discarded wrapping paper and bows she likes to save for next Christmas. It’s her favorite holiday and after she opens presents, she tends to retire to the couch for a holiday movie with the family or to the kitchen to pick at the breakfast spread.
This year, her absence is most notable when my brother, sister and I wake up to open gifts and aren’t made to wait the customary half hour it takes for her to drive over from her apartment. She is not in her chair but rather in a hospital bed with the odds stacked against her as her weakened body does its best to fight off cancer and now the flu. We all finish opening presents then get dressed and pile into the family car to head to the hospital where we come bearing gifts and snacks from Christmas morning. I’m not sure what I expect–perhaps one of those movie-esq scenes where the grandparent is cozy under a knit blanket with little more than a cough, then lights up as we all crowd into the cheery hospital room. Of course, life is not like the movies and instead the scene is a somber one as she lays there barely able to speak under a flimsy hospital blanket, her eyes darting around the room in fear as IV lines run out of her arms along with an oxygen line to her nose. We’re all wearing required hospital masks and gloves–a precaution both to her and ourselves as the flu she has is extremely contagious. There is no bedside hand holding or joyful unwrapping of gifts at the foot of her bed; my little brother sits in the corner covering his eyes, my teenage sister stands back awkwardly, the three of us unsure of what to say beyond “Merry Christmas” and “we love you.”
When I was a kid I used to love Greek Mythology (one of my many nerdy quirks at the time) and I remember reading a story about the Three Fates. It was imagined that three cloaked ladies–known as The Fates–handled the thread of life. One woman pulled it from the spool (symbolizing birth) another wove the thread (symbolizing the ebb and flow of our existence) while the third cut the thread (symbolizing death). As I sit now in the guest room of my parent’s home, I can’t help but think about that story. My grandma now needing medical assistance to breathe, my family now bracing themselves for whatever the Three Fates may decide, it’s hard not to think of mortality. At a moment like this, I’m not sure what is the “right” way to react. I feel incredibly conflicted–guilty for daring to turn any of this into some sort of self-reflection, eager to get back to New York to my own home and comfort zone, disbelieving that she may in fact die, terrified of how real this all is.
Seeing my grandma on Christmas Day reminded me of that scene when Scrooge meets his Ghost of Christmas Future and is met with both bone-chilling fear for what his future could hold if he doesn’t change, which gives way to a revitalized appreciation for life and a desire to live it. My grandma is a wonderful person–friendly, classy, funny–but not without her flaws. She opted towards isolation, she didn’t take care of her health and now—as someone in my family once told me–her body is cashing the checks she wrote in her younger days. I look at my other grandma—the same age–who is sprightly and active, healthy and vibrant. What a difference. Although I’m only 28, I can’t help but think of some of the checks I’ve written in my own life so far.
Readers may wonder why I’m sharing this post as it is much more personal than is normal for me and doesn’t deal with travel whatsoever. There perhaps isn’t a good answer; just that at this time the internet fills up with articles on New Year resolutions: X ways to make 2016 your best year yet. X ways to look more beautiful. X ways to be healthier. X ways to be luckier in love. I can be a sucker for these articles but not this year, not after this Christmas. My resolution this year is simple: to laugh, to make love, to eat well, to take care of myself, to be active, to travel, to make friends and in the end, to really just live. To remember the image of my grandma on that hospital bed–now forever seared into my mind–and what the cost of our choices now can be in the future. As my family waits for fate’s verdict on my grandmother–torn between grieving and hoping–I know we are all acutely aware of our own mortality and of the choices we’ve made and can still make for ourselves. It’s for this reason I share this story here and dare to unveil an extremely personal and sensitive part of myself; because life is short. It doesn’t matter if you’re famous, popular, beautiful, successful or rich; it doesn’t matter if you surround yourself with articles on ways to make yourself better, happier or thinner in the New Year. In the end, the playing field is even and all that matters are the people we love, the choices we’ve made and the memories we keep.
Update: Since I wrote this, my grandma was transferred to the ICU where she was sedated and put on a respirator. My family has received the devastating news that my grandma is unlikely to wake up and recover. As we draw close together and reflect on my grandma’s life whilst still hoping for a miracle, it is with a smile do we remember her and our many memories with her. As my dad just told me, we find immortality in the memories left behind in the minds of those we love; for that reason, she will live forever.